Today the European Court of Human Rights issued a ruling condemning Italy’s practice of sending undocumented migrants and asylum seekers found on ferries from Greece back to Greece within hours without adequately considering their particular needs or desire to apply for asylum.

Italian border authorities even return unaccompanied migrant children arriving at Italy’s Adriatic ports. Back in Greece, these migrants face a dysfunctional asylum system and abusive detention conditions.

That’s what happened to Reza Karimi, Yasir Zaidi, Mozamil Azimi, and Najeeb Heideri, all Afghans, in 2008. With the help of Italian and Greek lawyers and associations, they and 31 others brought the case, Sharifi and Others v. Italy and Greece, to the European Court in 2009.

The court judgment, which concerns only the four Afghan men who remained in touch with their lawyers, ruled that in summarily returning the migrants to Greece, Italy had violated their rights to freedom from inhuman or degrading treatment and to protection against collective expulsions. Italy also violated their right to an effective remedy when it denied them access to asylum, or any kind of appeal, against the return. The court found that Greece had violated the migrants’ rights by not providing them access to an asylum procedure and exposing them to the risk of being deported to Afghanistan.  

The judgment also confirmed what national and international human rights groups have been saying for years. Human Rights Watch documented the failure of Italian border police to screen adequately for people in need of protection. Placed in the custody of the captains of commercial ferries for the return journey to Greece, adults and children were sometimes subjected to abusive confinement and treatment. Back in Greece, unaccompanied children and asylum seekers, like all migrants, have been vulnerable to law enforcement abuse, degrading detention conditions, and an environment marked by xenophobic violence.

The Italian government should respond to the court’s ruling by immediately suspending summary returns to Greece from Adriatic ports. It should ensure that all border guards and nongovernmental organization workers in the port areas have the training, time, and access to identify adults with special vulnerabilities, or who want to apply for asylum. Anyone who says they are an unaccompanied child should, without exception, benefit from the specific protections guaranteed under Italian law, pending a properly conducted age determination.